by Laura Bartlett
Viewed through the smoke rising from the Iraqi National Library, days after the loss of artifacts from the Iraqi National Museum, the U-M Special Collections Library's exhibit of bookbinding offers examples of information-as-art whose value rose overnight as the total of the world's old and beautiful things fell.
The historical value of such information is illustrated by a rare fifteenth-century chained book, from one of the many medieval libraries that anchored their hand-copied volumes to shelves or reading desks. The massive tome is a grizzled German theological work, its covers studded with metal bumpers; a hefty black chain is attached to its back cover (shown at right). Exhibit curator Julia Miller reports that this loan from the Taubman Medical Library's rare book room is the sole chained book in the 7,484,000-volume U-M collection (there's one more with just the chain hole).
The book is one of Miller's favorites in the exhibit, along with two Ethiopian books bound in wooden plates, one a square Christian psalter housed in an elaborate leather saddlebag.
In addition to wood bindings, the exhibit offers examples in cloth, paper, leather, and genuine (animal skin) vellum. One case shows evidence of the fifteenth-century information revolution brought on by printing, when many vellum books were torn apart and their pages reused as covers for cheaper, paper books. One on display is bound in an old musical score, with the hand-inked notes and lyrics in spiky Gothic style running vertically along the front cover.
Other exhibit jewels include a dainty 1857 book whose cover shows a pert young woman and the title The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth ("by the author of It Is Never Too Late to Mend"). There's a proto-Art Nouveau masterpiece of swirly ribbonlike flowers against a background of tiny gold bubbles, and a case showing modern art binding techniques. There's also the free, superinformative sixty-four-page exhibit catalog itself, bound with a couple of staples.
The exhibit title is Miller's riff on Shakespeare's characterization of the amateur actors in A Midsummer Night's Dream as "rude mechanicals." It sums up her view of these books as information machines with moving parts that are also objects of sophisticated beauty that are "suave like Cary Grant . . . with a little age, a little patina, a real character of beauty."
Suave Mechanicals continues through July 26.
[Originally published in May, 2003.]
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